Category Archives: Books

Books Bought and Found in Tbilisi

Russian Book

Tbilisi is full of old books. Some are sold from stands in underground metro passages, others you can barter over with booksellers at open air bazaars, and some, as I found out yesterday, you can discover in dust-covered boxes next to the large metal trashcans outside your apartment. This was my first exposure to the world of Caucasian dumpster diving; I’d seen stray dogs and cats stealing all kinds of rotting vegetables and entrails from the trash but I assumed there was nothing in there for me. My neighbor hood, Isani, is the Armenian district in Tbilisi and most of the Armenians here speak Russian in and outside the home. It looks like these books  belonged to either a Russian or Armenian family because they were all in Cyrilic. There were about 6 boxes and a few moments after I started digging through them, two older Georgians pulled up and helped me pick out some classic Russian literature and other gems until my arms were full. I helped them haul the rest into the back of their van, which was with covered in white dust and filled with powdery sacks of flour. I come back to the apartment with biographies of Gorky and Mayakovsky, plays by Chekov, two books on Lermontov, two collections of Tolstoy stories, a book of Lord Byron translations, a short soviet-era novel called ” How to Temper Steel,” a book of Armenian poetry (in Russian), and a translation of  “A Thousand and One Nights“, complete with incredible pictures which I’ve posted at the top of the page.

My pile of new books

1001 Nights

Armenian Poetry

Vladimir Mayakovsky

The pictures from “1001 Nights” are probably mt favorite but the Mayakovsky books also has some great photos:

The Poet with Dog and Cigarette

Anna and I haven’t found all our books in dumpsters – We’ve accumulate a decent collection of other Russian, Georgian, and even English books intended for people of the Soviet Union, with translations of colloquial phrases and other different words in the back.:

And here’s a little excerpt from the back of the Somerset Maugham book:

This version of Alice in Wonderland, published in Moscow in 1967, has  incredible artwork, which I think are reminiscent of some other soviet era cartoons. Just take a look at some of these chapter headings:

Anna has been, slowly but surely, translating a book she bought from a bookseller in one of the underground passageways on Rustaveli. Its called “Georgians in Moscow,” and it details the history of the community from the year 1653 to 1722. Here are a few photos from inside the book:

I am planning on doing another post about the Georgian Futurist Movement and a book we bought at the literature museum with graphic poems and Dadaist literature but that will have to wait. Here is a couple pages from it until next time:

– Ben

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Neal Ascherson’s “Black Sea”

I have been working my way through Neal Ascherson’s “Black Sea” since I arrived in Georgia. It’s taken me months, mostly due to laziness but partially because Ascherson has the ability to present multiple ideas in a single sentence, each one branching off into a new area of interest that warrants further research ( i.e. youtube and google  searches).

The book begins in the Crimea and tends to move clockwise (with stops in Russia, Abkhazia, and Turkey) but also jumps both geographically and chronologically, discussing the ancient Greek colonies on the Danube and Herodotus’ writings, Polish writers in the Crimea and Turkey before the Russian Revolution, Tatar Mongols and their effects on the genealogy of the peoples of the Black Sea. Its baffling the variety of topics covered in each chapter so I won’t discuss them all- I just want to discuss my favorite topics and post a few links to related articles and videos.

Earlier on, Ascherson discusses Barbarism and this concept’s origins in the works of ancient Greek writers. He writes:” The term ‘Barbarian’ began as an onomatopoeic Greek word about foreign language: the ‘bar-bar babble’ sound of an incomprehensible tongue. ”  He goes on to explain that while the term was initially used in the Illiad  but hadn’t yet obtained a cultural and political meaning. The term was used in reference to the unknown, the others.  The term began to take on a new meaning doing the time of the Persian Wars:

“but in the 5th century BC Athens, above all the Athenian tragedians, constructed a single barbarian world, squeezing people as distinct as the Scythian nomads and Mesopotamian city-dwellers into a single new species, and opposed it to the image of a single and united Hellenic world. All that the Athenian ideology found alien and repulsive was now transferred from the ‘monster’ to the ‘barbarian’….and from this new species were born other oppositions. It was not only the Scythian whose aporia was barbaric in contrast to Greek and European qualities of freedom and settledness. It was the Persian of Asian whose servility, luxuriousness, and cowardice were barbaric in contrast to Greek and European qualities of freedom, self-restraint, and valor.”

The discourse of Barbarianism seeped into the plays and other writings of numerous Greek writers. It was apparently difficult to cram such a diverse number of “non-greeks” into one category but this particular problem was overcome:

“The Scythians and other northe’rn peoples, for example, were supposed to be wild, hard and ferocious, while Persians were perceived as effeminate and undermined by easy living. Never mind! By swerving between two extremes, barbarians were only showing how far away they were from the Greek Ideal of mosotes (measuredness), or from the Greek ethic of nothing-in-excess.”

While this ideology was maintained (and arguably still exists in much of the Western world), the romanticism of the ‘Barbarian’ (and the discovery of Greek/Barbarin hybrids) began to seep into the writings of Greeks who were either banished to outlying colonies of the empire, or those who willing explored these outskirts and catologuged thier interactions. The Stoic Philosopher Dio Chrysotom (I’ve linked the name to his “ecomium on Hair” ) visited the Greek colony of Olbia (in present day Ukraine) in 95 AD and catalogued much of what he saw (a rarity at this point in history).Dio was visiting the city at a time when the ties between the Graeco-Roman world has not been severed but had been gradually fraying. The citizens seemed to be half Scythian and half Hellenic. They wore Scythian clothes and most spoke horrible, outdated Greek. Ascherson describes one of Dio’s interactions with one of the Olbians:

” He (Dio) met a handsome lad on horseback called Callistratus and started a conversation. Callistrus was a real museum piece. He was wearing ‘Barbarian’ trousers and a cape, but on seeing Do he hopped off his horse and covered his arms, observing the old Greek rule that it was bad manners to show bare arms in public. Like the other Olbains, he turned out to know Homer by heart and to be immensely proud of it, however poor his spoken Greek was. But Dio was even more fascinated to discover that Callistratus was gay. At the age of Eighteen, he was already famous in the city for his courage in battle, for his interest in philospy and for his beauty, ‘and he had many lovers’. Dio read this not as some fact about sexual orientation, but as a wonderful survival from a lost age. Here, in the time of the Roman Empire, flourished still the ancient Greek veneration for homosexual love as the supreme intellectual and spiritual experience. the Olbians supposed that in the world beyond the sea homosexuality was still the height of fashion”

I especially enjoyed this excerpt because of what it illustrates about cultural hybrid-isms  and the strange ripple effect that comes as a result of larger empires abandoning or losing territory or their control over a population. I’ve read of other instances of the same phenomena, in another book that took me even longer to read (about 6 months). In Rebecca West’s gargantuan book of Yugoslavian travel writing “Black Lamb Grey Falcon,” she describes a scene in which the representatives of Ataturk’s new government in Turkey come to Bosnia to meet with Muslims living in the former Ottoman Empire. Citizens of the town come to the train station dressed in their traditional attire, wearing their Fez and other Eastern dress, and are shocked when the representatives appear, dressed in button down shirts and Western attire–a trend encouraged by Ataturk. Both of these illustrate the way history lingers and transforms in different environments, creating something ultimately new and distinct, but forged from the old and what was once commonplace. It’s a concept I’d like to explore more in the field of ethnomusicology, examining the music of border regions or searching for Ottoman influences in places like Bulgaria and Serbia, or Persian influence on the music of Armenia and Georgia.

I know very little about Polish history and was surprised to find that, even though its shares no borders with it, much of its political and literary history has ties to the Black Sea. Mickiewicz , Poland’s greatest poet, was sent into exile at the age of twenty-four. Odessa is supposedly where he “let himself go,” visiting brothels and describing himself in his poems “as a ‘pasha’ with a harem.” He also had a love affair Karolin Sobanska, a Russian informer and collaborator, who was the wife of the man who essentially served as his parole officer, Jan Witt. It is also where he also wrote his “Crimean Sonnets” of which there are eighteen.  These poems are still widely known and quoted in Poland.

Ascherson also discusses the Sarmatians.  It is an extremely strange, backwards, and contradictory example of class ism. In the sixteenth century, Polish writers started to claim that the Polish people were actually descendants of a tribe Indo-Iranian pastoral nomads called the Sarmatians. Supposedly this was for political reasons, allowing the Polish nation to lay claim to lands to the East.

“But then, in the next hundred years, the Sarmatian myth took an extraordinary, freakish twist of its own……..In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Polish nobility came to believe that it was they – not the Polish population at large- who were the exclusive descendants of the Sarmatians. ”

This helped to create a kind of caste system in which peasants were believed to be a ancestors of the Sarmatian’s slaves. This ideology also helped promote new forms of fashion:

” The style was also, and famously, about dress and decoration. Here, all of the ironies of Sarmatism were concentrated. By the early eighteenth century, the Polish-Sarmatian noble was a startling, unmistakable figure. He shaved his skull, cultivated long, dropping mustaches and wore a long kontusz caftan held in over his paunch by a sash. His sword would be a curved scimitar, its hilt probably encrusted with gold and jewels. In short, he looked like a Turk – or possibly a Turkified Tatar…..This  neo-Sarmatian outfit was actually the clothing of Poland’s enemies, the oriental gear of Turk and Tatar warriors appropriated by those who boasted that they were the bastion of Catholic and European Christianity against the pagans.”

Ascherson also travels to eastern Turkey, to an area populated by the Lazi people. They are not turkish; The Lazi speak a language that is in some ways similar to Mingrelian and falls into the Kartvelian language group. The Lazi language is at some risk of extinction, partially due to the fact that is had no written alphabet up until the German Scholar Wolfgang Feurstien began sending textbooks with an alphabet he had helped create using his previous linguistic research in the area and with help from Lazi people living in Germany. This attempt to catalog and encourage the usage of this language got him in trouble with the Turkish government. The editor of a Lazuri journal in Istanbul was arrested after its first issue was published. Ascherson details the complexities of being a Lazi and having the option of multiple identities Turkish, Lazi, or some combination of the two. He also talks briefly about a language called Ubykh, which is now extinct. The last speaker of Ubykh, Tevfik Esenc, died in 1992. Dr. George Hewitt, the Caucasian Languages professor at London University, is quoted briefly discussing the need to catalog and encourage the use of all of the smaller Kartvelian languages:

“I regard myself as immensely privileged to have met and worked with Tevfik Esenc, in 1974, and ever since I have not deviated from the belief that it behooves all of us with an interest in the languages of the Caucasus to do all we can to prevent any of the rest suffering the same fate as Ubykh, whether by language-death through accidental or deliberate neglect of by the threat of physical annihilation….”

I found a short documentary called ” Son Sesler” which means “last sounds” in Turkish. It footage of interviews with the last speaker of Ubykh.

There is also this short video of a french linguist describing his lessons with Tevfik Esenc- 2:00 into it he discusses the variety of consonances, of which Ubykh has 84.

And these three topics are a small portion of Neal Ascherson’s book. I could write more but this post is too long already. If read it this far, thanks, I appreciate it.

– Ben

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Kartuli Ena (Georgian language)

In preparation for teaching in Georgia we’ve both been trying to practice “kartuli ena” (Georgian Language).  We’ve been working through Dodona Kiziria’s “Beginners Georgian,” which has a great preface about the history of the country’s unique alphabet and language.

To quote directly from Kizeria’s preface: ” The Georgian Language displays surprising stability and consistency in its grammatical system. Today, eighth-grade students can read with relative ease eleventh-century texts, and almost any Georgian, young or old, can quote stanzas from the twelfth century narrative poem The Knight in the Tiger’s Skin, a part of high-school curriculums.”

Georgian is spoken by the approx. 4 million people in the country and by emigres in diaspora. The first Georgian alphabet, asomtavruli,was created in the fourth century, probably based on Greek and Phoenician letters. It can be seen in its earliest forms chiseled on church floors in Georgia, as well as in churches in Greece, Palestine, and Egypt where Georgian clerics would travel to study their new found faith (Christianity, which was adopted sometime in the middle of the third century AD).

In the nineteenth century, when Georgia became a part of the Russian Empire, a policy of Russification began that banned the use of Georgian in official institutions. Thanks to the intense efforts of Georgian intellectuals, Russian censors eventually allowed the publication of magazines and newspapers in Georgian. Jacob Gogebashviliv published a primer for elementary school children entitled Deda Ena in 1876 that is still used in the first grade.

Starting in the 1920s, the Soviet educational system encouraged universal literacy and provided free education. They instititued a program of native language education in an attempt to combat the 70% illiteracy rate across the USSR.  By 1979, Georgia had the greatest number of people with university and college degretes in the Soviet Union.

In the books we have read so far, Georgians seem  intensly proud of their alphabet and language. Their claims concerning its longevity may sometimes be a source of bad blood between them and their  neighbors.   In his book Eastward to Tartary, Robert Kaplan, during a conversation with an Armenian, insinuates that the younger Armenian alphabet looks “similar” to the Georgian. The Armenian replies by telling him a joke in which the Georgians decide on the letters of thier alphabet by throwing a bowl of spaghetti against the wall.

At the University of Oregon library we found only one book of Georgian poetry (besides The Knight in Tiger’s Skin). We copied down our favorites. Neither the poet’s name  or date of pubication were listed:

Wish

A lake of blood swirls in the meadow, where is the stream flowing out?                                                                                                                                                                                        Within lies a crimson serpent, its head moves; where is its tail?                                                                                                                                                                                                 Loving too much brings doom to many, but has anyone understood?

Ben and Anna

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Thomas De Waal’s “The Caucasus”

Last night I finished reading Thomas De Waal’s introduction to the Caucasus.  Ideally, this should have been the first book I read about the region; It provides just enough information and anecdotes about each country to incite further research.

Waal very briefly discusses the pre-Russian history of the Caucasus by dividing the first chapter into a Persian, Azerbaijani, Armenia, and Georgian sections. He cites Sayat Nova (See earlier post) as an example of the intermingling influences of the pre-Tsarist atmosphere. He quickly moves on to the 1800s and the arrival of Russian protection, colonization, and absorption.  The third chapter focuses on the Soviet Caucasus, beginning with the post WWI teetering between Transcaucasian independence, Bolshevik influenced states, and fully incorporated members of the USSR, continuing onto Stalin’s and Beria’s purges and exportations of ethnic communities, all the way up to the fall of the Soviet Union..

By the fourth chapter, Waal begins to focus on the individual conflicts that have come to define each country and their relationship to each other, Russia, and the West. He covers the Nagorny Karabakh “quarrel”,  Caspian energy, and varying aspects of Georgian politics including Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and The Rose Revolution (my favorite detail of which Waal describes:  ” Saakshvilli dramatically swept into the parliamentary chamber, clutching a single red rose and shouting ‘Gadadeki, gadadeki!’ (Resign!”) Shevardnadze stopped reading his speech and was hustled from the chamber by his bodyguards. Saakashvili strode onto the podium, theatrically finished the cup of tea Shevardnadze had been drinking, and declared the new parliament invalid.”).

One feature of the book I particularly enjoyed was Waal’s short blurbs inbedded in each chapter pertaining to a short topic: Wine, Georgian Language, Lermontov, Rustaveli Avenue, How Georgian was Stalin?, Soviet Florida, Baku Jazz, Shusha, Ajaria, The Greeks of Abkhazia, and The Ergneti Market. The book never covers any concept or country in-depth, but that’s not the point of an introduction. I would recommend the book to anyone interested in becoming interested in the history, culture, and conflicts of the Caucasus.

– Ben

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Goltz on Abkhazia and Asmus on South Ossetia

Thomas Goltz‘s “Georgia Diary” and Ronald d. Asmus‘ “A Little War that Shook the World”  both address the events that led to the  conflicts in Georgia’s separatist regions. They both differ greatly when it comes to the perspective of their authors and the scope in which they view the implications of the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Goltz is a war reporter and writes like a war reporter i.e. macho, sardonic, and cynical. In the beginning of “Georgia Diary,” Goltz is driving a rental car carrying another reporter and Abkhazian separatists down a mined road just beyond the ever-changing Georgia/Abkhazia border:

“..’Stay away from that one,’ says one of the militiamen in the back seat, pointing to a small pile of shattered blue bathroom tile scattered over a water pocket in the broken tarmac. I have already seen it and meant to avoid. If there isn’t a mine under that chunk of rubble, I will eat tiles for breakfast. ‘Boom,” I say playfully  jerking the wheel in the direction of the pile.”

He also has  great sense of humor which breaks through the veneer of  hardened, stranded-in-the field war-time journalist and allows the reader to share his enthusiasms and curiosities.  The book starts in January 1992 when Goltz, a reporter living in Baku,  is asked by the london Sunday  Times to find and interview Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the first president of Georgia and the nationalist responsible for the slogan “Georgia for Georgians.” Goltz, nor any other reporter, is able to find Zviad. This sojourn does get Goltz involved in the conflict in Abkhazia and he subsequently finds himself trapped in an extremely confusing war zone.

The fighting in Abkhazia in the early 90s had so many moving parts (historical and ethnic grudges, Russian manipulation, seemingly hypocritical North Caucasian intervention by Chechnyan free-lance militants against the Georgians) that every reporter involved had a difficult time weeding through the contradictions, confrontations, and conflicting view points of militants, politicians, and citizens of the region. Goltz does an excellent job of weaving together the necessary historical/political background, his own experience through his interviews with Shevardnadze, his relationship to the citizens of Sukhumi and their personal reflections, and his descriptions of the situation on the ground, with its constantly changing borders and the influx of foreign fighters and exodus of native Georgians. “Georgia Diary” gives great insight into the conflicts of the early 90s but leaves a great deal unresolved. This is not the fault of Goltz, it is simply the situation; very little has been resolved, even twenty years later.

Much is left unresolved in the closing of “A Little War that Shook the World” as well. Ronald d. Asmus was a diplomat and he writes like a diplomat. Very little is said about the ethnography and history of the region of the conflict. Asmus uses the conflict to comment on the relations between Russian and Nato affiliated countries.. Georgia is merely a pawn (which should be apparent by the cover of the book) in the power struggle between Russia and the West.   Hour by hour events of the summer of 2008 are meticulously chronicled,  including Saakashvili’s phone conversations and sleep schedule. This doesn’t actually  make for a boring read; it’s a nice juxtaposition of what seems like vanilla diplomacy and the visceral reactions of politicians. Vladimir Putin comes off as the quintessential evil, revenge driven antagonist. Asmus describes a closed-door meeting in which Putin literally mimed throat slitting in reference to Georgian plans to maintain sovereignty of South Ossetia. Much like the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, no one side, including the West, comes off looking particularly well. Mistakes were made by all. Unlike the Nargorno Karabakh conflict, there is a very obvious hierarchy of power and a concrete evidence of malicious intent on the side of the Russians. The most frustrating example is that of Russian “peacekeepers.” When Georgian troops advanced into the region, they were ordered not to fire on Russian peacekeepers, supposedly neutral forces stationed in the region to deter ethnic conflict. In one instance, Georgian forces allowed these individuals to pass only to have the peacekeepers turn around and open fire, killing Georgian soldiers. One the other hand, many Russian peacekeepers were killed who may have been simply attempting to keep the peace.

“A Little War That Shook the World” mostly functions as a warning to the West. The Russian reactions and manipulations of  the “Kosovo Precedent” and its implications illustrates how much seemingly unrelated international events that many view as positive can be used to support a variety of conflicting idealogues. The Russian Government, who very much opposed the precedent, used it as supporting evidence for the Ossetian’s  right to autonomy (and a subsequent Russian annexation).

Both books help to explain the international implications of these separatist regions but neither (especially “The Little War”) will help the reader to understand much about the culture and history of the people living in them. That isn’t the intent of either author and would probably be a difficult feat. What is accomplished by both is an illustration of the importance of small countries and regions. Conflicts in countries and autonomous regions no one has ever heard of  are often the spark that lights an international brush fire. Asmus and Goltz both believe it would be in the West’s best interest to pay attention.

– Ben

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Thomas de Waal’s “Black Garden”

I just finished reading Thomas de Waal’sBlack Garden” which analyzes the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. He supplies the reader with a mixture of historical context, first hand reporting, personal reflections of citizens and politicians, and his own observations about the future. My favorite anecdote:  power outages ran are very common in the Caucusus but then were extremely lengthy during the winters in the early 90s due to the conflict. Armenian citizens heated water by hanging razor blades from metro lines and used the small amount of electric current to eventually bring the water to a boil.

From an outsiders perspective the situation seem incredibly frustrating and  Waal’s description leaves all sides (including the West) looking irrational and myopic, with every community having justifiable grievances but a complete lack of empathy for the other’s, remarkably similar, complaints. Wall’s explanation of  Armenian and Azerbaijani historians manipulations of ancient ethnography and hundreds of year old events gives insight into the sway of  historians in modern politics/disputes. In the U.S. a degree in history is considered by some a waste of a liberal arts education; in the Caucusus, that profession makes you responsible for justifying military conflicts and the forced migration of entire populations through what are many times weak and shaky assertions.

The book was published in 2003 and now, almost 10 years later, it seems like little has changed. The Georgian times just posted an article in which analysts rate Karabakh as “the # 1 most likely place for war to break out in the next 10 years.”

“…Along the Line of Contact in Karabakh, the grim litany of skirmishes and deaths by sniper fire will rumble along. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are now deploying drones along the LoC, so expect the conflict to gain a new, aerial dimension (we’ve seen the first signs already). Sabre-rattling, military exercises and soaring defence budgets will all continue, but – as previously – don’t expect a new shooting war.”

Here is a short documentary that gives a some quick background into the conflict.

If you are interested in delving deeper into the dynamics and history of Karabakh and it’s conflicts, I suggest reading “Black Garden” (and taking notes).

– Ben

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